What to do about broken sleep
I spend a good chunk of my working week researching and writing about sleep. It's a subject that many of my clients and their clients are interested in, and a topic that has been well-researched and written about in much detail.
I've always been fascinated by sleep, and equally freaked out. The fact that our consciousness literally shuts off each night, entering our brains into a dreamlike state, and then turns back on again in the morning, I find, quite frankly, bonkers.
Anyway, I've written so much about sleep that I should be an expert at doing it. But, I'm not. I tend to follow all the golden rules - creating a calm sleeping environment, sticking to the same bedtime each night (more or less), no screens for at least one hour before bed, and keeping the bedroom on the cooler side with our window always ajar through the night. Getting off to sleep is not the hard bit for me. The thing is, there just always seems to be something to wake me up after I drift into that nice deep sleep.
Broken sleep is a nightmare (literally) and something that affects your mood and productivity enormously, not to mention your skin and under-eye baggage. So, here I'm going to take you through some of the categories of broken sleep that I'm most familiar with, along with a few tips of how I've learned to cope with each type. Hopefully, there might be a couple of takeaways that could help you the next time you're woken up mid-dream...
Since birth, five-and-a-half years ago, my youngest son, Rocco, has suffered from regular bouts of asthma. These episodes occur about every 3-4 weeks, lasting between 3-4 days, and during them, he wakes at night every 2-3 hours needing his Ventolin inhaler and a cuddle. The summer months are better, but this post-Covid winter has been especially bad, with more episodes and longer spells.
The broken sleep that comes with looking after a poorly child feels like a form of torture. Not only are you worried about the poor little soul, but you can't physically get the sleep you need to have enough energy to look after them properly. It seems to go like this for me: Fall asleep; Hear child shouting about an hour later: Give inhaler: Go back to bed: Take about 30-mins to fall back to sleep: Drift off: Hear child shouting an hour later. Repeat 3-4 times before it's finally morning and I look like I've been knocked over by the number 40 bus.
The hardest thing about this form of broken sleep is that there really isn't a solution for it. It comes as part of the parental package. I often think that maybe if we had a bigger house with a spare room then Chris and I could take it in turns each night to wake up for Rocco so that at least we would get one good night's sleep each. But, then I think that my mothering instinct would still kick in regardless, and I would wake up just to check that he is okay anyway, so it would be pointless in Chris suffering too.
Therefore, my only remedy for this kind of broken sleep is how to deal with it in the morning:
Start the new day with two glasses of water to cleanse your gut and balance your lymphatic system.
A big green juice is next on the list for a vitamin hit - throw in some celery, spinach, kale, cucumber, and an apple into the juicer.
Some form of exercise should follow within an hour or so later - I find an outdoor run or cycle is best if possible, but if not then just anything cardio-based.
Then comes an energising shower - warm at first, followed by a minimum of 30-seconds under the coldest shower you can stand.
Stay away from screens for at least a couple of hours after waking up
Soak your eyes with a good squeeze of eye drops, followed by a dollop of caffeine serum under your eyes to take away a bit of the puffiness. Cold compresses are also helpful to place on tired eyes - I keep some cryo rollers in the freezer at all times for this.
Ah yes, the stress sleep. I know it well. You go to bed exhausted from your shitty day, thinking that you will literally pass out until 7 am. But, oh no, as soon as 3 am strikes, you are woken up like a bolt of lightning, palms sweating, heart racing, and mind buzzing.
Everything seems so much worse at 3 am, so whatever stress you are experiencing at the time, it's going to feel much worse right now. It's helpful to bear this in mind and keep reminding yourself of it regularly when it happens so things don't spiral.
With this kind of broken sleep, you need to focus on calming your mind and relaxing yourself back to sleep. Breathing exercises are very helpful here. There are two, in particular, I use when I wake up with anxious thoughts at night:
The first is my counting belly balloon. For this, I imagine my belly like a party balloon. As I breathe in for a count of five, I imagine my belly filling up with air and lifting up towards the ceiling. Then, as I exhale back out for a count of five, I imagine the balloon deflating back down. On my next breath, I will inhale for six and exhale for six, and so on up until I reach ten or twelve, or find myself asleep again!
The second breathing exercise is where I imagine my breath traveling right around my body, giving it a nice relaxing massage as it goes. I start at my feet, breathing normally, but imagining the air from my breath massaging around my soles, I then move it to my ankles, calves, knees, etc until my whole body is getting a nice massage. It's so soothing. I'm usually back asleep before I get to my neck and head!
During these exercises, it's natural that your mind will keep wanting to go back to thinking about your stressful situation, but you need to bear with it and use your breath to anchor you and clear the thoughts away again as they arise.
We've all been here before (well at least those of us who are over 30!). It's Friday night, we've been out for a late dinner with friends, we didn't eat dessert until about 10 pm, we drank a few glasses of Pinot, and now here we are, in bed at 11.30 pm, full as a gun and unable to sleep. Or, another scenario is that we drift off to bed fine at first, but then wake up a few hours later when the booze is wearing off and the dehydration is kicking in.
It's a fact that both heavy meals and alcohol disturb our sleep. Alcohol before bed can make us spend more time in deep sleep and less time than usual in the important Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep. But, we need this important restorative stage of sleep otherwise we will wake up groggy and grumpy in the morning.
Therefore, I have realised that I need to stop drinking at least two hours before bed. If I'm out for dinner or drinks, I will have a couple of glasses of wine early on, but then I will stop and move on to water - rarely drinking past 9.00 pm. Similarly, I will try to leave a two-hour gap, minimum, after eating and going to bed. Disclaimer - at the time of writing this article, I must admit that I seem to have broken both of my food and drink rules for two nights in a row, and I can assure you that I have suffered the consequences: Friday night my FitBit said I had 5hrs 19mins of sleep, and then 5hrs 49mins last night - nowhere near enough the amount I need!
Anyway, luckily, I've also recently re-discovered activated charcoal tablets, and they really are doing wonders for my stomach! Activated charcoal works through the digestive tract by trapping toxins in the gut and preventing them from being absorbed. The charcoal stays in your body until it's passed out when you do a number two - along with the toxins it latched on to inside. Pretty amazing really. I usually take between 3-4 tablets when I know I'm going to be eating something out of my usual tolerance, such as bread, pasta, or a spicy curry! It also supposedly helps with the neutralisation of alcohol too.
Other forms of broken sleep
This is by no means an exhausted list of reasons or solutions for broken sleep. There are many other reasons why you might struggle to stay asleep - external noises, pets, noisy partners, medication, or illness. However, the above examples are definitely the most common reasons for my broken sleep of late.
I would love you to share your sleep secrets with us, as well as any advice you have on broken sleep, so please do leave some comments in the box below for us all to see.